TAMPA — In Progress Village, teenagers run toward the action when they hear the word "fight!" • They heard it in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon in March, an early release school day. An hour later, they heard gunshots. • Men in two cars sprayed bullets into a crowd of at least a dozen boys and girls. The teens ran to save their lives. Some tripped in unkempt grass. Others tried to jump a fence. Bullets hit a hand, a shoulder, a side, a leg. • In the end, four boys — three 16-year-olds and one 13 — were shot. Four suspects were caught. Nobody died. • But the shooting concerned neighborhood elders. Amid the melee were the boys they'd coached in Little League and football, a new generation making the same old mistakes.
So they knocked on doors and summoned all the neighborhood boys. They gathered for a straight talk on a recent Thursday night, before a Friday off from school.
The boys filled the rec center, little ones with baseball gloves and big ones with their friends, ones whose parents don't worry about them at all and others who make them lose sleep.
One still had a bullet in his leg.
They shifted in their seats as coach Dwayne Sanders spoke into the microphone.
"What is it," he asked, "that y'all feel this community is not doing to help you?"
• • •
This wasn't what they imagined when they named this neighborhood. In 1958, the idea was conceived by a group of influential Tampa men as a way to thaw race relations, an opportunity for black people to own homes, a promised land away from the projects.
The pioneers watched their own little slice of the American Dream spring up along 78th Street and braved the Ku Klux Klan just to get home every night.
These days, the poison comes from within. Drug dealers train 13-year-olds to make fast money. Kids break into their neighbors' homes. A 19-year-old got life in prison for shooting a cop.
"We're giving our community a bad name," Sanders said.
• • •
The grown men told their stories.
The coach's son Dwayne Jr. violated his probation on a grand theft charge and spent nine days in jail. He talked about the hard beds, the uniform he was forced to wear, the 4 a.m. breakfast wakeup call. The Thanksgiving he spent behind bars.
Will Jones of St. Petersburg told of the night he was shot nine times by a college football teammate in a conflict that didn't involve him. He was picked off of a big group not unlike the four boys that recent Wednesday .
Jones asked one of the 16-year-olds shot in Progress Village, Quadarrius Brown, to tell what happened.
"Me and my friends were just walking down the street," he said, "and these boys — we ain't never met them before — we just seen a car coming up. … They pulled a gun out the window."
The explanation didn't sit well with one man in the audience, a father named Rico Potter. His own 16-year-old son was saved from the bullets because he tripped as he ran. He knew there was more to the story. He believed the fight started because neighborhood boys jumped a kid and older ones retaliated. Potter's family doesn't live in Progress Village, but his son hung out with high school friends who did.
The big man walked to the front of the room and spoke with a voice that came from his gut.
"I might even break some tears up in here," Potter said. "I'm trying to save my f------ son right there. ... The apple don't fall far from the tree. ...
"I went to prison two times," Potter said. "I didn't have no daddy that would tell me, 'Okay son, you need to go this road.' My daddy died two weeks out of prison. …
"I didn't finish high school. … I done robbed. I done shot people. I done kidnapped. Am I proud of it? Nope. But guess what? Something kept me out here, gave me that second chance. … I ain't been back since, because I can watch my kids grow up out here or I can watch them grow up in there."
After the shooting, Potter took his son out of Spoto High School and told him he could never step foot in Progress Village again.
But what about the boys who live there? Whose grandparents built it? What about the ones who live in nearby neighborhoods but play in its park?
Escaping can't be the answer.
Bryan Jette, 16, spoke up.
"When we get bored," he said, "that's when we do dumb stuff."
Finally, what the coach had been wanting to hear. A boy talking.
"What is it y'all want to see me do to stop y'all from getting bored?" he asked.
The answers started coming from all over the crowd.
Football, basketball, baseball tournaments. Field trips. Summer camp.
After a decade of lobbying by the neighborhood's youth football organization, the county allocated $4.65 million to build a big, new sports complex that is now under construction.
That will help. So will sponsorships.
The men talked about starting a program to mentor boys who don't have fathers. Many in Progress Village don't.
"Turn around, young men," the coach told the boys. "Turn around. See all those men in the back? We're here because we care. We're here because we want to make a difference. We're here because we can make a difference.
"But y'all gotta help us."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at (813) 226-3354 or [email protected]